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May 01, 2014

Medical cannabis bill includes special carve-out for Florida growers -- but who?

In the flurry of amendments on the bill to legalize a limited strain of medical marijuana, the House approved a provision sought by Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres, which would require that the only nurseries that could grow this strain of marijuana would be those who have been operating on Florida for 30 years or more. 

Caldwell, a real estate appraiser who touts the fact that he is a seventh-generation Floridian, inserted the amendment into the bill without debate, explanation or discussion. Caldwell told the Herald/Times he believes there are about 35 growers in Florida who could compete for the five dispensaries that would be allowed to handle the medical pot. (We've asked the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services for more information on this list.)

But the amendment does appear to be an attempt to exclude out-of-state growers, such as the Stanley Brothers who have developed the low-THC strain of marijuana that was discovered by a mother of a child with intractable epilepsy.

The strain was given the name "Charlotte's Web" after Charlotte Figi, the seven-year-old child whose seizures have gone from hundreds a day to only a few a week after she started taking an extract placed under her tongue.

The House passed a bill authorizing a similar strain to be developed in Florida by a vote of 111-7 Thursday. The measure now heads to the Senate. 

According to Caldwell's amendment, growers "must possess a valid certificate of registration issued by the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services pursuant to s. 581.131 that is issued for the cultivation of more than 400,000 plants, be operated by a nurseryman as defined in s. 581.011, and have been operated as a registered nursery in this state for at least 30 continuous years."
The bill is expected to be accepted, unchanged, by the Senate on Friday, the last day of the legislative session, said Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation, a chief sponsor of the bill.



Under federal investigation, ex-Rep. David Rivera announces he'll run for congress again

@MarcACaputo and @LuisaYanez27

David Rivera, the former Miami congressman under investigation in a complicated campaign-financing scheme, said Thursday night that he intends to run again for the United States House of Representatives.

Rivera made his announcement on Spanish-language Mega TV and wouldn’t talk about the federal investigation, claiming it was the result of lies propagated by The Miami Herald, whose investigative work has resulted in one federal conviction and the recent federal indictment of the Republican’s close friend.

“I will not answer to the lies of the Miami Herald,” Rivera said on the political talk show Ahora con Oscar Haza.

“I will not deviate from the issues and [will] defeat Joe Garcia. "Rivera said he’s running due to a “leadership crisis,” calling Garcia “incompetent.”

Garcia declined comment about Rivera, who beat Garcia in 2010. Rivera then lost to the Democrat by about 10 percentage points in a 2012 rematch in the newly drawn District 26 boundaries that stretch from the Miami area to Key West.

Rivera’s announcement stunned Florida’s tough-to-surprise political world.

Continue reading "Under federal investigation, ex-Rep. David Rivera announces he'll run for congress again" »

Senate approves in-state tuition for undocumented students

Ending a fight that lasted more than a decade, the Florida Senate voted Thursday to let undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities.

The 26-13 vote came as no surprise. The sponsor, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, had been confident he had the votes all along.

But that didn’t stop him from getting emotional in debate. "The eyes of America are on us," Latvala said. "I think we’re setting an example. I think we’re doing the right thing."

Because the Senate tweaked the bill slightly, it must return to the House for final passage. But both House Speaker Will Weatherford and Gov. Rick Scott said the new language wouldn’t hurt the controversial bill’s chances of becoming law.

"I look forward to signing this bill," Scott said. "This is a historic day. Just think, children that grew up in our state will now get the same tuition as their peers."

That action would make Florida the 21st state to offer in-state tuition rates to undocumented students.

Read more here.

House passes limited medical marijuana bill 111-7

OT_383003_KEEL_13_FLGOV050214The Florida House confounded the naysayers and agreed to legalize a limited strain of marijuana for a specific list of medical purposes, bringing the last-chance remedy closer to reality for thousands of Floridians suffering with epilepsy.

As the families of children with intractable epilepsy watched from the public gallery, the House voted 111-7 and sent a compromise bill to the Senate, which is expected to approve it and send it to the governor on Friday, the final day of the legislative session. Gov. Rick Scott surprised supporters and told reporters that if they pass it, he will sign it.

Photo: Kim Dillard of Pensacola holds the hand of friend Josh Walters, 16, and her son Daniel 15, during the House debate on the medical marijuana bill. Both boys suffer from Dravet's Syndrome, a form of intractable epilepsy.

The House vote came after 45 minutes of emotional debate as legislators from both sides of the aisle spoke about their initial reluctance to support the bill only to be persuaded after realizing it was narrowly drawn and had immediate potential to save lives.

“If we do not act today with the safety net and the provisions in this bill, those children will die,’’ said Rep. Ray Pilon, R-Sarasota, a former police officer and one of 34 co-sponsors of the bill, SB 1030. “I plead with you. Reach down into your hearts. Are we really doing to harm these children? I don’t think so. Do we have a great possibility of saving their lives? Absolutely.”

More than 125,000 people suffer from severe epilepsy in Florida and the bill authorizes doctors to order low-THC cannabis for use by patients suffering from chronic seizures. The House bill also allows the specific strains of cannabis to cover cancer and persistent muscle spasms, including Lou Gehrig’s disease and other chronic conditions.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, the prime sponsor of the bill, called it a "very cautious step for those very sick children, without cracking open the door too far to inappropriate use.’’

Five dispensaries throughout the state, operated by nurserymen who have been registered in Florida for at least 30 years, must be licensed to provide access to the drug. The dispensaries must show they can cultivate non-euphoric marijuana, have the appropriate financial stability and have its operators undergo a background check.

Authorized patients will be allowed access to the drug through oil or vapor form, but it may not be smoked. The House compromised with the Senate to reduce the number of ailments covered by the legalized marijuana.

“While I wanted this to be on Alzheimer’s, PTSD, we have compromised with the Senate and only added cancer,” Gaetz said. “There are specific conditions that you must have and, if you don’t, you will commit a criminally culpable act.”

Continue reading "House passes limited medical marijuana bill 111-7" »

Latvala, sheriffs help take out Brandes' NRA-backed gun bill

It’s not often that a bill backed by the National Rifle Association dies in the Florida Legislature, which is dominated by proud gun-owning conservative Republicans and Democrats.

But that’s what happened Thursday thanks to the combination of the lobbying force of the Florida Sheriff’s Association and the legislative acumen of Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who for the second straight day helped kill a controversial bill.

SB 296 would have allowed those in lawful possession of guns to conceal weapons without a permit during mandatory evacuations and local emergencies, such as riots. That's not the same as a gun owner, and could apply to adult children or spouses of gun owners with clean criminal records who are found carrying guns.

The bill, which passed the House last month 80-36, was “insane”, said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who worked with Latvala to add an amendment to the bill that would have limited the exemption for concealed weapons permits to 24 hours. It also would remove the exemption once the carrier of the weapon reached their destination upon evacuation.

“It just provides a reasonable limit,” said Latvala, who delayed the bill from getting discussed on Wednesday. 

It passed 23-15, with the support of Tampa Bay senators Latvala, and John Legg of Trinity, another Republican, and Arthenia Joyner, a Democrat. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton and the sponsor of the bill, Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, voted against the amendment.

Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, is a former sheriff of Citrus County who normally backs NRA measures. Not this time. He said it went too far, and would made it hard for law enforcement to pick out "the average joe" who might be packing hear during evacuations.

After the amendment was added, Brandes pulled his bill. Afterward, he said he wasn’t going to bring it back this session.

“(The amendment) makes it a felony if you’re a minute late after the evacuation,” Brandes said. “It makes the bill anti-2nd Amendment. It defeats the whole purpose.”

Brandes said he'll try to bring it back next year.

Gualtieri said he was surprised that Brandes felt that way. He said he worked with Latvala to make sure the amendment brought clarity to the proposed law so that law enforcement knew how to enforce it. Without the specifics the amendment provided, the bill was too vague, he said.

“It put understandable terms to the bill,” he said. “I really don’t get why he feels that way. Why would he want the law to be ambiguous?”

Drawing attention to the bill’s survivalist, every-man-for-himself ethos, Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, filed an amendment that would include, among the emergencies where permits weren’t need to carry guns, a zombie apocalypse. It wasn’t heard on the Senate floor, however, because Brandes pulled his bill before it was heard.

“Of course he was,” Brandes said when asked if Bullard was poking fun at the bill.

Gualtieri said he’s reading for the NRA backlash. He said members had been sending strongly-worded emails to lawmakers in the past few days urging the passage of the bill.

“There was a lot of pushing on this,” he said. “If they’re going to come after me now, so be it. Get in line, I guess.”


DCF adopted new policies to mask mounting child deaths, records show

In the wake of one of the deadliest eras in the history of Florida child welfare, administrators pledged to be more open, even suggesting the added scrutiny could help the agency keep more youngsters safe.

“The answer is to keep this in the public eye,” DCF’s interim Secretary, Esther Jacobo said in January, while discussing ways to reform the troubled agency.

But even as lawmakers debated measures to require the Department of Children & Families to be more transparent, the agency has pushed to weaken them and has already quietly adopted internal policies making it harder for the public to track the agency’s actions.

DCF’s new disclosure policies delay and sharply restrict information provided in official child death reports, a move critics argue could help mask mounting child deaths. The policies are far more rigid than in past years, when the grim details in those reports led to a yearlong Miami Herald investigation called Innocents Lost. Story here. 



Yes even beer can lead to (Mostly) False claims

Though state Sen. Kelli Stargel has watered down her bill regulating craft breweries to allow 64-ounce growlers, she’s made it very clear she still thinks the content is strong.

Stargel, R-Lakeland, on April 28 wrote an editorial in the Tallahassee Democratdefending her position on SB 1714, which would allow sales of 64-ounce growlers but require microbreweries to sell through distributors if its sales are high enough. She introduced an amendment to allow breweries to sell up to 20 percent of their product in house.

Her editorial pointed out the apparent dangers of allowing brewers to sell their product.

"In states where beer is unregulated, the per capita production is significantly higher," she wrote. "Higher beer production and higher consumption go hand-in-hand. As a social conservative, this is why I believe we need to keep regulations on alcoholic beverages in place and not have unregulated beer widely available in the marketplace. Social issues greatly impact economic issues, and we must seek a balance on both."

We looked at the regulation claim in a separate item, but we also were curious whether higher beer production led to higher consumption. Time for PolitiFact Florida to buy another round.

Read the full story on PolitiFact's website.

-- Joshua Gillin

House and Senate reach agreement on tax breaks and fee cuts

The House and Senate agreed on a package of tax and fee cuts that includes tax breaks for school supplies, hurricane supplies, youth bike helmets, medicinal pet food, and college meal plans that next year will cost the state $105 million and local governments $27 million.

When combined with $400 million in a reduction in annual auto registration fees that have already been signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott, next year’s budget will include a total of $500 million in tax and fee cuts.

Absent from the tax package was a reduction in the communications services tax, that would have given a break for millions of cable and phone subscribers that Senators had promised last month.

But according to Senate Appropriations Chair Joe Negron, R-Stuart, the savings from that tax cut for the average consumer was nominal, ranging between a 40 cent to 80 cent tax break on a monthly bill, and therefore not worth it.

“It’s such a low amount I don’t think it represents a significant tax reduction,” Negron said. The package, HB 5601, also won’t include a loan program for qualified television and film industry projects. That's been a huge priority for the South Florida and Tampa Bay regions.

"Unfortunately, we're dying on the one-yard line," said Sen. Nancy Detert, the Venice Republican championing film industry incentives.


Continue reading "House and Senate reach agreement on tax breaks and fee cuts" »

House, Senate agree on watered-down textbook bill

Florida school districts won’t have to select their own textbooks next year.

Lawmakers had proposed shifting the responsibility from the state Department of Education to local school boards — an idea that came into being after Volusia County parents complained about a textbook they considered pro-Islamic.

But school boards opposed the idea.

"It was going to be extremely expensive and extremely time consuming," said Wayne Blanton, the executive director of the Florida School Boards Association. "And there were no extra dollars in the plan."

Lawmakers sided with the districts Thursday.

Read more here.

Historic House vote boosts noncitizen's legal bid

In a historic decision, both houses of the Florida Legislature agreed Thursday that the state Supreme Court should allow a noncitizen to practice law in the state for the first time.

Prodded by the court itself, the House voted 79-37 to let Largo resident Jose Godinez-Samperio practice law in an "act of justice," in the words of House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. The House version is slightly narrower than the Senate's so the bill (HB 755) must be ratified by the Senate one more time before it can be submitted to Gov. Rick Scott for his approval. The Senate voted 25-12 to support his bar petition last week.

After the House vote, members gave Godinez-Samperio a standing ovation, and he responded with a wave and a thumbs-up gesture. He was watching in the House visitors' gallery flanked by his lawyers, the husband-and-wife team of Talbot (Sandy) D'Alemberte and Patsy Palmer along with Steve Uhlfelder, a Tallahassee lawyer and lobbyist who has also worked behind the scenes to round up enough votes for the legislation.

"Today is a great day for justice," Godinez-Samperio said. "It's a great day for fairness."

Palmer, a former high-ranking Senate staffer, called Thursday's vote "truly transformational, one of those hinge moments in history," when Florida leaders' collective attitudes about immigration underwent a dramatic shift. The lawyers circulated a fact sheet about the case that noted that in every other profession licensed by the state of Florida, a person can't be disqualified "solely because he or she is not a United States citizen."

Godinez-Samperio's petition for a law license was rejected by the Supreme Court last month, which said that a federal law prohibited non-citizens from receiving certain state benefits. But justices noted that states can opt out of that law, and they urged the Legislature to intervene in the case to remedy what they called an "injustice."

Godinez-Samperio's champion in the House was Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, a lawyer who's also an Iraq war veteran. Steube altered the bill to require that a non-citizen seeking to practice law must have registered for the draft, which Godinez-Samperio has. The 27-year-old Florida State University law school graduate already has a work permit, Social Security card and Florida driver's license.

Opponents of the bill raised a flurry of questions, most of which Stuebe deflected effectively. Rep. Neil Combee, R-Polk City, wondered whether Godinez-Samperio, once licensed to practice law in Florida, could run for a judgeship as a noncitizen.

The answer: No. A judge must be registered to vote, and as a noncitizen, Godinez-Samperio is ineligible to vote.